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Lightning just as frightening on Jupiter as it is on Earth

Juno probe strikes at the similarities despite differences in planets' size and structure

Lightning is strikingly similar on Jupiter as it is on Earth, data from the Juno probe has revealed.

A study of data from the NASA hardware has shown that pulses during the birth of lightning on the distant gas giant occur at a similar rate to our terrestrial orb, despite the two planets' considerable differences in size and structure.

A team led by Ivana Kolmašová, a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Atmospheric Physics of the Czech Academy of Sciences, has concluded that even run of the mill thunderstorms may be comparable between the two planets.

The details of the processes initiating lightning on Jupiter have been fairly obscure to planetary scientists, although observations of the atmospheric phenomenon were made by Voyager 1 in the late 1970s.

One giveaway is the existence of Jovian whistlers, which propagate electromagnetic waves at very low frequencies, equivalent to audible sound frequencies.

"The Juno mission revealed electromagnetic signals of Jovian rapid whistlers at a cadence of a few lightning discharges per second, comparable to observations of return strokes at Earth," said the paper published in Nature Communications this week.

"The duration of these discharges was below a few milliseconds and below one millisecond in the case of Jovian dispersed pulses, which were also discovered by Juno," the paper said.

The team analyzed nearly five years of data from Juno's radio receiver during its polar orbit around Jupiter. The results suggested step-like features of lightning initiation similar to observations from thunderstorms on Earth.

"Our results indicate that Jovian lightning is initiated at a larger spatial scale compared to processes preceding cloud-to-ground lightning in the Earth's atmosphere, but the process might be comparable to the initiation of normal intracloud lightning," the researchers said.

Juno was launched by the Atlas V rocket from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) in August 2011. It reached Jupiter in 2016 to become the first probe to peek behind the massive gas giant's dense layer of clouds.

In 2021, Juno's data showed the Great Red Spot is much deeper than had been believed and offered more detail on the planet's banded structures below its cloud layer.

After leaving polar orbit, the probe had a close encounter with the Jovian moon Europa in September last year, after which NASA released the highest resolution photograph ever taken of its icy crust. ®

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